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How one city government turned its Facebook page into a virtual town hall

 

Philippe Leclerc, Interactive Communications Manager, City of Regina, Saskatchewan

Trying to drum up interest in a local election can seem futile, especially if there’s no hot-button issue at stake. With tiny or nonexistent advertising budgets and limited interest from local news organizations, city managers and municipal public relations pros have long felt powerless to ramp up voter turnout. It’s a natural opportunity for a social media outreach effort. 

In Regina, Saskatchewan for the Canadian Public Relations Society‘s annual conference this week, I was fortunate enough to listen to a great success story in this vein. Cision sponsored a breakfast at Regina City Hall where Philippe Leclerc, interactive communications manager for the city, discussed his experience launching the city’s presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  

After discovering that 144,000 Regina residents are Facebook users, about two-thirds of the population, Philippe launched the city’s Facebook page initially as a voter education tool, using it to answer simple questions about polling place locations and voter registration. “The election gave us exposure and earned media that spread the word about our social media efforts,” Philippe said, adding that the move “allowed us to react and respond to our citizens in an environment/channel they wanted.” 

The page now has more than 8,000 fans. In less than a year, it has evolved into a virtual town hall, a forum for discussion about city issues ranging from pesticide use (the mosquitoes can get rowdy this time of year), to street sweeping and parking. Philippe also uses it to promote city events, such as a free barbecue in Victoria Park this week. It amounts to a new communication channel between the city government and its residents. 

“This was a very new approach for the City and I wasn’t really sure how people were going to react,” Philippe said. “We needed some time to build trust among our citizens and once that happened we needed some critical mass for it to really take-off. I’d like to say everything happened exactly as I had planned but you always need to have a certain amount of luck.”

Of course, some residents take to the page to criticize city services. Regina recently changed one-way streets in its downtown area to two-way, generating plenty of criticism and debate. But most comments are simply useful feedback, even if they seem mundane: 

 

  

Philippe wanted the city’s communications team to have a common understanding of the protocol for responding to negative comments.  “As our page is political in nature we will receive a certain amount of negativity no matter what we do,” he said. “We needed to be prepared for that and needed to decide if this was going to be an ‘open or closed’ Facebook page. I believe the real benefits were only going to be achieved if it was open. The result is sometimes unexpected and not always pretty but we really feel we have a pulse of the population.” 

As a next step, the city is considering dedicating time in the schedules of specific customer service employees for answering residents’ questions on Facebook. The customer service and communications departments are working closely together in social media, Philippe said. 

That’s part of what makes this one of the better social media success stories in the realm of local government that I’ve heard: the departmental collaboration aspect. The more we hear about turf wars over social media in organizations (indeed, they occur in the private sector, non-profit and government agencies), these stories are refreshing.

What’s even more exciting is the conversational nature of the Facebook page; it’s more than simply a stream of promotional updates from the city; it’s a place for discussion. That’s because the city made the bold decision to accept the good feedback with the bad, rather than moderating comments.

Many organizations have yet to ask themselves one of the toughest questions in social media engagement: how thick is our skin?

 

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